Patience

By Heather Haskins

ON the cement step in front of Grandma and Grandpa’s house sits a glass jar. It’s the kind of jar you don’t even have to lift to know that it is heavy, its glass thick and cloudy, its neck little more than a wide opening at the top of its square body. On damp summer mornings, its two gallons of water absorb the grayish color of the foundation underneath. But by early afternoon, the water has turned several shades of brown—darker at the top and gradually fading into dirty transparency near a mound of swollen lemon slices at the bottom—until the muddy looking insides have stained the jar a deep, sun-baked mahogany.

“The agony of the leaves,” my grandmother explained the first time I asked her how sun tea happened. Several hours before, while I rolled a lemon up and down Grandma’s drop leaf kitchen table, I had watched her pluck loose tea leaves from an old wooden box, pinching them between thumb and forefinger, then packing them gently, lovingly, into a tiny metal ball filled with pin-sized holes. The ball, attached to a tiny chain, looked like a tiny shackle that a tiny captive might wear around a tiny ankle to prevent an escape.

“Agony?” I echoed, watching grandma’s delicate fingertips move expertly from wooden box to metal ball, box to ball, box to ball, like a pulse. Her smooth, delicate hands never betrayed her life of scouring and baking and canning and scrubbing. People would never know, just from looking at her, that she had dedicated herself to serving my grandfather and raising her children—my father, his four sisters, and the other sister, the half-sister, from the first marriage Grandma barely acknowledged. The marriage she described as having “happened” to her, like a tornado or diabetes or some other force beyond her control. Never one to indulge in self-pity or hyperbole, Grandma never lied about pre-Grandpa life either. She would only confirm that the marriage to her first husband had both existed and dissolved in the time it took to get pregnant with my half-aunt Linda. Nothing more needed to be said about an unchanging, unchangeable story.

“True stories are usually short,” my grandmother always insisted when I asked her to entertain me with tales of her first marriage. But I knew that her kitchen was her territory, the place where she was most willing to talk about herself. So I went there often. And I waited.

“My first husband, he was a drinker,” she would eventually begin. “A heavy drinker. And he hit me now and then. But he liked the women too, and back then you could have a man thrown in jail for that kinda nonsense. So I was patient. I knew before long he’d end up bringing one of them women home with him when I wasn’t there. It wasn’t long ‘fore I peeked in through the back window and caught him. I didn’t even know her name. He probably didn’t, neither. Well, I took one look at the two of ‘em before I walked back down the driveway and headed to the police station with a belly full of baby. I told ‘em to come get him. And sure enough, they dragged him off to jail. It don’t matter none how I felt about it. How I felt about him. I did what I had to do. And then I got a job. And then I met your grandfather.”

Grandma often joked that she met Grandpa by accident, while he was dating her older sister Jean. “Oh, he got along with Jean, I guess,” she admitted. “But Jean, she was a wild one. Liked the gin and liked the men. You know your grandfather don’t tolerate none of that. I guess I was more his type. I guess maybe Jean and me, we just ended up with the wrong men the first time around.”

I wasn’t so sure that a teenage girl working in a factory and raising a baby by herself was my conventional, Jehovah-worshipping grandfather’s type. What’s more, as the years passed and my grandfather’s increasing demands and short temper became more and more pronounced, I was surprised that he had ever been my grandmother’s type, either. Sure, he didn’t seem as bad as the violent, drunken ex-husband she’d had thrown in jail, but he didn’t seem to appreciate my grandmother. Not like I thought a husband should appreciate his wife. He never thanked her. Or hugged her. Or laughed with her. At least not that I saw.

“So how does the tea happen?” I had asked, trying to pull myself out of the sadness I always felt when I pictured anyone hurting this gentle, soft-spoken woman. Grandma snapped the tiny leaf-filled ball shut and looked directly into my eyes.

“Patience, my dear,” she whispered, wiping her damp hands on the faded gingham apron cinched around her waist. Grandma was what she referred to as “top heavy,” a condition that turned her apron waistband into an equator, separating her round body into northern breasts and southern belly. She was soft and sturdy at the same time, as if her purpose in life was to give birth and feed mouths and bandage bruises. And make sun tea. “Nothing worth anything happens quickly,” she announced as she headed to the giant green cooler in the kitchen corner and filled the jar with fresh spring water.

Nothing worth anything happens quickly. I rarely understood these Grandma-isms, but I loved how they sounded as they fell out of her mouth. They reminded me of the fortunes my cousins and I used to collect from the insides of Bazooka bubblegum wrappers:

“What you think will happen, will.”

“No one knows what you can do until you try.”

“Sometimes what you want is just within your reach.”

While the cooler released a stream of burbling water from the spigot under grandma’s thumb, I thought about how easy she made things seem. In her presence, everything was possible. Everything just happened without effort, like a mysterious, magical force that fed mouths and bandaged bruises. And turned water into tea.

After she filled the jar almost to the top and set it in front of me on the table, Grandma slid her sharpest paring knife from her utensil drawer. With loud, dramatic chops, she sliced three lemons into twelve quarters, stuffing each juicy wedge into the jar, one at a time. Then she plunked the tiny metal ball into the water and positioned the jar’s metal cap. And with a single turn to the right, the cap clicked and locked the ingredients inside.

I sat silently for a moment, memorizing the bright yellow bottom, the ball and chain’s rounded top half floating on the surface while its leaf-filled body dangled below.

“But how does this start out as water and become tea?” I repeated, not sure whether Grandma was misunderstanding my question or I was misunderstanding her answer.

“Well, the sun heats the water. And the hot water opens the tea leaves inside that little ball called an infuser. And when the heat opens the leaves and they swell with water, their color and flavor leaks out into the jar and fills it with tea.”

Even though Grandma had quit high school at age fifteen to help her parents work the family farm, she suddenly sounded as smart as my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Brush.

“That sounds just like one of my Science lessons. How do you know so much about tea, Gram?”

“Oh honey,” she chuckled, “I started making tea when I was big enough to raise the well bucket. And when the day came I could finally buy it from the store, turns out Grandpa and the kids always liked my homemade tea better. So I ain’t never stopped. I guess I been making sun tea for . . .” she paused, closing her eyes and tilting her head back as if her answer hung from the ceiling, “oh . . . about fifty years now. Well, since I was just about your age.”

“But I never see you drink it,” I persisted. “Do you even like sun tea?”

“Oh, it’s ok. I like making if for people who like it,” she winked at me. “So I guess I’d say I like it alright.” She hauled the jar into the crook of her elbow and headed toward the front door. I followed her to the spot on the step I had come to know as the Tea Spot, that little square of grey, gravelly cement just outside the door. In the mornings, before the sun climbed over the house, the chilly step hid in the shade of the rickety wooden roof above. But by early afternoon, it became the perfect place for lazy tea leaves to awaken and unfurl their essence. And as long as that step held a jar in some stage of brewing, everything felt the same. Everything seemed okay.

“Now, we wait,” Grandma sighed as she set the jar down with a grunt while glass and stone scraped against one another.

Time seemed both endless and stalled while the sun and the tea had their familiar conversation: Heat. Brew. Infuse. Release. Darken.

The agony of the leaves.

The agony of the waiting.

When the tea was finally ready—a judgment my grandmother based on a particular shade of brown—my initial excitement always faded behind the unquenchable longing to leave the jar where it stood. Untouched. Its seal unbroken. Its flavor an untasted promise. But eventually, Grandma disappeared into the house and returned with two perfectly frosted mugs whose massive handles she placed in my tiny grip. In the moment it took to turn-click-pop the metal cap, I realized that the sadness I suddenly felt came from my belief that nothing could ever be as rewarding as the first taste of a new batch of sun tea.

As if she could hear my feelings, Grandma wrapped her arm around my shoulders and held the jar in pouring position. “This is our reward,” she smiled, “for patience.” Then she knelt beside me on the cement step and filled the mugs between us with the perfect shade of brown. And together, we swallowed the moment forever.

___

Heather Haskins is currently completing her Masters of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. Primarily a nonfiction writer, Heather is writing her first full length memoir while continuing to produce shorter personal essays, humor writing, and flash fiction. As a member of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild, she participates in several local writing groups and is developing her latest project, a work-in-progress blog called “Lighten Up,” as a way of “peeking through the darkness and metaphors” once in awhile.” In her day job, she writes and manages state and federal grants, policies, and documents on domestic violence.


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